Angela Colley — It’s Complicated
Dear Its Complicated: I have been at my job for three years. In that time, I’ve been promoted twice and received three small raises, but I know there’s nowhere else for me to go in this position and I’m likely near the top of the pay scale. Overall, my job is manageable, but it isn’t something I want to do long term. I’ve been casually looking and applying for other positions in my area in the last year. The problem is, in my field I’ll likely need a graduate degree to move into a new position with a new company.
Knowing that I’d need to advance my degree, I found two programs I could complete as a working adult—one that is in the exact field I want to pursue (analytics in business) and one that is a more generalized business degree. Since I don’t want to take on any more student loans, I’d planned on paying for this myself, but then I found out that my current company offers tuition reimbursement. Essentially, if I elect to use this benefit, I’ll have a large part of my graduate degree program paid for, but there’s the rub: The company only accepts certain degree programs and I’ll have to agree to work here for three additional years if I receive assistance.
So now I feel a little stuck. The exact analytical program I wanted isn’t available, but I know a graduate degree in a business field will still help me find a better job. There’s also the issue of working another three years here. Most of that time I’d be working toward the higher degree, but it seems like a big commitment to make for a job I know I ultimately don’t want. Any advice?
First of all, congrats on going after a higher education degree! Going back to school when you’re already out in the workforce is an incredibly hard thing to do.
The next thing you should weigh is whether you must have the degree before you can pursue a new job. “I often see people who think they need to go back to school for a degree when they really don’t. So many people believe you need a degree to change industries, when that’s not the case. You only need to be able to translate your skills into your new field,” says Amanda Oliver, founder and CEO of The Color Coded Life, a career counseling service geared toward young professionals.
In your case, you may be able to find a great new job now without the degree, especially if your new employer knows you plan to go back to school to get it. Since these choices can be hard to compare, it might make sense to keep one foot in the job market. Continue to apply for the jobs you want and see what happens while you’re weighing your options.
The next thing to consider is how your current company’s benefits look compared to the cost of paying for your education yourself. Oliver recommends looking into all your funding options, including any scholarships or grants for working adults, to get a sense of what you’d need to pay out of pocket first. Once you have that in mind, ask for a copy of the full requirements for tuition reimbursement. You’ll want to know exactly how much the company will pay, when they’ll pay it, and what you’ll have to live up to in exchange.
And don’t forget to compare their accepted programs against the kind of jobs you’re looking to get. Generally, a degree in a field that’s related to your ideal job is perfectly fine as long as you have the experience to back it up. You can get a sense of whether that’s true for you by looking around at job postings to see what kind of degree they’re looking for. If the degree you can get tuition assistance for falls within that field, you could always take supplementary classes to learn the analytical side as well.
If the degree program will benefit you, you can work on it while you finish your work requirements for the company, and it is your best option for free or reduced tuition, “I’d say it might just be worth it to stay and power through,” says Oliver. However, before you make the jump, make sure you really understand what you’re signing up for. Often, if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain, for example, by quitting before you finish your three-year commitment, your employer may expect you to pay back any tuition they covered. If you’re not sure you understand the terms of the deal, as silly as it may seem, Oliver recommends running it by an attorney—especially if your tuition assistance will stretch into the thousands.
Finally, the last thing to consider is a biggie: just how much do you hate your job? If you don’t mind it day to day, it is in your field, and it will help you make progress toward your future career goals, sticking it out for a few years might be worth it—but only if you can make it work for you, at least for the time being.
Oliver recommends taking a step back and considering what about your job gives you the most trouble before you agree to anything. “See if you can address some of the areas you hate,” she says. If your daily tasks are boring, “ask if you can take on something else you love doing to outweigh it,” Oliver says. If your direct supervisor or your co-workers are weighing you down, “ask if you can get moved to another team.” And if the whole workplace vibe is just toxic, “Perhaps you can ask to work remotely—at least part time—so you don’t have as many interactions with people.”
It may feel like a big ask between the tuition assistance and some changes to your job role, but keep in mind that assistance is a pretty standard benefit with many large corporations, not a special favor they’re doing just for you. And as far as the other potential changes goes, it never hurts to ask. In the end, you may end up with some pretty sweet career advancement help–and a break from your nagging co-workers.